Autism, overcoming picky eating

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Autism and good nutrition
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Autism affects every child and every family differently. Some children with autism have such sensory issues that introducing new foods is just one of the many nightmares parents face. Although it is often the most stressful battle and the easiest to let go, it also happens to be the most important battle for parents to win. Good nutrition is essential in helping children with autism to face the world. But how do we do this when the only things they want to eat are chicken nuggets and jam sandwiches? These kids especially need to get as much nutrient dense food into their bodies as possible. Sneaking nutrition into their chosen food is a great start! But what’s next? Surely the time comes when  it’s no longer appropriate to take our home-made, nutrition-packed chicken nuggets out to dinner? How do we get our autistic child to eat a variety of whole foods in their natural state?

We’ve come across a great 11-step action plan that’s well worth giving a shot. Make a list of the foods you want your child to learn to eat, and apply it with each. Be patient, do not expect to complete one step each day, expect this to take 6 months for the first food you work on introducing. As time goes by each new food may take less time to introduce than the previous one.  Keep in mind that having your child choosing to eat nutrient-dense whole foods in the long run is worth the effort, and all the time it takes.

  1. Start by eating your chosen food next to your child. Let’s say it’s a banana. Make sure you have your child’s attention and say, “mmmm this banana is yummy!” (do this until your child is comfortable just watching you eat the banana while you’re sitting next to him.)
  2. Have a friend or someone influential and highly regarded in the eyes of your child eat a banana next to your child. Have them get your child’s attention and say, “This banana is yummy!”
  3. During various “times” in the child’s schedule (school, home, therapy) have your child look at and talk about a picture of a banana. Do drills or play games and sort into categories pictures of bananas and other foods on your list. Take your time and enjoy the process, eventually moving from pictures to real food. Again, give it time, and allow your child to be comfortable with handling the real banana in his down-time.
  4. At mealtime, put a small portion of banana on a small plate right next to your child’s plate. Discuss the banana and eat some from the plate, commenting to your child, “This banana is yummy!”  Do this at meals until you can see your little one is ready for the next big step.
  5. Now we’re moving into some big steps! Your child needs to tolerate the banana on their plate with the rest of their food. So…deep breath….Put the banana on your child’s plate and tell your child, “You don’t have to eat the banana, it just needs to be on your plate during your meal.” Keep doing this until your child is comfortable having the banana sitting on his plate.
  6. Put some banana on your child’s plate with their meal and say, “You don’t have to eat the banana, but you need to touch it with your finger, just once during your meal.”
  7. Next your child needs to pick up the banana during their meal. Again, say, “You don’t have to eat the banana, but you must pick it up once during your meal.”
  8. Now that your child is comfortable with the banana on his plate and is picking it up at least once during his meal, we step it up again. Tell your child, “You don’t have to eat the banana, it just needs to be picked up and put on  your lips once during your meal.” Get really good at this before moving on to the next big step!
  9. Now the banana needs to touch the tongue! Tell your child, “You don’t have to eat the banana, it just needs to be picked up and put on your tongue once during your meal.”
  10. Ready for it? Have your child put the smallest piece in their mouth and swallow it.
  11. Although it is possible that he might chew a little at step 10, especially as you begin to make your way through your list of foods, the final step is working with your child to chew his banana before swallowing.

It is worth noting that some children have a natural resistance to eating food that they are allergic to. If you are concerned that this may be the case, or even if you’re not sure, have them allergy tested for the food. Also be aware that there may be one or two foods that your child will just not like ever, period. It’s okay to be sensitive to this and allow them to have a food item on their hated foods list, just keep an eye on it and don’t let that list get too long!


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